Islam in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam

       *  Just for future reference: Islam has made its way also to Indochina. Lets keep an eye on it. Sheik yer’mami will saddle the camels later this year and go on discovery…      


Land-locked Laos, an antique, Buddhist land still partly hidden from inquisitive outside eyes by a fading veneer of communism, is just about the last place in Southeast Asia one might expect to find a Muslim community. Certainly the country is ethnically diverse. Roughly half the total population of four million are ethnic Lao, known locally as Lao Lum, close kin to the inhabitants of neighbouring Northeast Thailand. These are the people of the Mekong Valley lowlands who predominate in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, and who have traditionally dominated Lao government and society.

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Of the remaining half of the population, an estimated twenty per cent are Lao Tai groups such as the Tai Dam, Tai Daeng, and Tai Khao (Black, Red and White Tai), Thai subgroups closely related to the Lao Lum, but who live higher up in the hills and cultivate dry rice, as opposed to the irrigated rice paddy culture of the lowland Mekong valley.

Then there are the Lao Theung, or “approaching the top of the mountain” Lao, a loose affiliation of mostly Mon-Khmer people who live half-way up the mountains and are generally animists. Formerly known to the ruling Lao Lum by the pejorative term kha, or slave, this group constitutes a further fifteen to twenty per cent of the population, and makes up by far the poorest section of Lao society.

Finally, on the distant, misty mountain tops live–as might be expected–the Lao Sung, or “High Lao”, people who make their residence at altitudes of more than 1,000 metres above sea level. Representatives of this group are also to be found in northern Thailand–Hmong and Mien, together with smaller numbers of Akha, Lisu and Lahu.

Where, then, in this confusing ethnic melange should one look for a Lao Muslim community? Islam has always been a religion of trade, which suggests the market places of settled urban communities like Vientiane. Because of their special dietary needs (the requirement to consume only halal, or “permitted” foodstuffs, with a total prohibition on pork and improperly butchered meat), Muslims are often to be found working in meat markets, their stalls distinguished by a crescent moon or simple sign in Arabic.

On the other hand, in Laos as in neighbouring Thailand, Burma and Southwest China, much of the trade on the mountains has traditionally been carried on by Chinese Muslims from Yunnan–known to the Lao, as to the Thai, as the Chin Haw. These pioneering caravaneers once drove their mule trains south to Luang Prabang and beyond. In the late 19th century outlaw bands of Haw, both Muslim and non-Muslim, sacked Vientiane where they tore the spire off That Luang in their search for buried gold. Haw Muslims, unexpectedly, do sometimes live on the mountain tops, where they have become successful middle-men in the trade between lowlanders and hill people.

In times past, then, Laos did have a small rural Muslim community living high in the hills, but with relatives in town to supply the necessary trade goods. Today, however, the Chin Haw Muslims–together with much of the Chinese community, of whatever religious persuasion–have by and large returned to China or migrated abroad to Thailand or the West, peripheral victims of the Sino-Soviet cold war which saw Laos, as Vietnam’s protege, on the side of the Russians and against the Chinese.

With the departure of the Chin Haw, Laos’ sole remaining Muslim community is to be found in the capital, Vientiane. The city boasts one Jama’ Masjid, or Congregational Mosque, in a narrow lane just behind the central Nam Phu Fountain. The building is constructed in neo-Moghul style, with a typically South Asian miniature minaret and speakers to broadcast the call to prayer to the faithful. Signs within the mosque, which boasts a large communal kitchen at ground level and the main prayer room on the first floor, are written in five languages–Arabic, Lao, Tamil, Urdu and English.

The unexpected presence of South Indian Tamil script is a reminder that, in crossing the Mekong, the traveller has traversed not just one of the great rivers of Asia, but also one of the great cultural divides of Europe. For Vientiane’s Jama’ Masjid, like the surrounding city and indeed Laos itself, was once part of former French Indo-China. The unexpected Tamil influence derives from Pondicherry, France’s former Tamil toe-hold on the Indian mainland. Tamil Muslims, known as Labbai in Madras, and as Chulia in Malaysia and Phuket, found their unlikely way to Vientiane via Saigon, where the mosques also sport signs in Tamil, or in Malayalam, the language of South India’s Kerala province, and site of France’s other former Indian possession, Mahe.

Not that there is any indication of Francophone influence in the Vientiane Mosque. On Fridays, when the obligatory Jama’, or congregational prayer, is held, the atmosphere is strongly South Asian. Local Muslims, speaking Lao but often of unmistakably subcontinental ancestry, mix with itinerant Pathans and Bengalis on Dawa’–a kind of wandering missionary work aimed less at converting the non-believer than at “purifying” the practice of those already committed to the way of Islam.

Other regulars at the mosque include diplomats from Muslim embassies in Vientiane, such as the Malaysians and the Indonesians. The Palestinians also maintain an embassy in Laos, and the Palestinian ambassador is a familiar sight at Friday prayers.

Most of Vientiane’s Muslims are businessmen, involved in the textile business, various branches of import-export, or in servicing their own community as butchers and restaurateurs. A number of good South Indian Muslim restaurants exist, notably the centrally situated Taj off Man Tha Hurat Road, and a group of two or three halal establishments at the junction of Phonxay and Nong Bon Roads which also cater to hungry embassy staff.

During working hours, Vientiane’s local Muslims are most visible in the textile sections of the various markets–for example the Talat Sao, or Morning Market, at the junction of Lan Xang and Khu Vieng Roads. They tend to be confident, friendly, and well-to-do, though they speak less English than is usual amongst South Asian residents of Southeast Asia, and a question in English may well elicit the reply “Bo hu” (“I Don’t know”) in Lao.

Few Muslims live in the smaller towns and settlements beyond Vientiane. Some say there is a small mosque in Sayaburi, on the west bank of the Mekong not far from Nan–but Sayaburi has been closed to outsiders for many years, and only now, as the restrictions on internal travel within Laos are lifted, is it once again becoming accessible. When asked about the presence of Muslims elsewhere in the country, an elderly Muslim of Vientiane shook his head sadly and replied–in an intriguing hybrid of Lao-Arabic–“Kaffir mot”, all unbelievers.

Yet this is not quite the case. For within Vientiane, yet outside the predominantly South Asian circle of the city’s Jama’ Masjid, another less prosperous Muslim community also exists. These are the Cambodian Chams, most of whom are refugees from the barbaric Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot, who instituted a campaign of genocide against Cambodia’s Cham Muslim minority.

Cham schoolteachers at a madrassa in Vientiane.     

David Henley / CPA
Cham schoolteachers at a madrassa in Vientiane.

Vientiane’s Azhar Mosque, known locally as “Masjid Cambodia”, is located in an obscure corner of Vientiane’s Chantaburi district. The Cham community is small–numbering only about two hundred–and it is relatively poor. The Chams do have, however, a strong sense of identity, which is why they have built their own mosque. As followers of the Shafi’i madhab their religious practices differ slightly, too, from the South Asian Hanafis of the Jama’ Masjid.

Besides their relative poverty, many of Vientiane’s Chams have been traumatised by their experiences living under and escaping from the Khmer Rouge. Most originally come from Muslim fishing villages along the banks of the Mekong above Phnom Penh. Following the Khmer Rouge seizure of power in 1975, their mosques were pulled down, they were forbidden to worship or to speak in the Cham language, and many were forced to keep pigs.

Pol Pot’s eventual aim seems to have been the complete extermination of the Cham as a people. The eyes of Musa Abu Bakr, the dignified old imam of Vientiane’s “Masjid Cambodia” filled with involuntary tears as he recalled the death of nearly all his family from starvation. Reduced to eating grass, the only meat they got was when the Khmer Rouge soldiery forced them to eat strips of pork, forbidden to them by religion.

Some Chams, like those in Vientiane, fled Cambodia. Others survived by concealing their religion and ethnic identity. As many as seventy per cent died from famine, or from having their heads beaten in with hoes to save bullets. It is a testimony both to the hospitality of the Lao people, and to the tenacity and will to survive of the Chams, that Vientiane now boasts a small but resilient Cham Muslim community.


Text copyright © Andrew Forbes / CPA 2001.

This article was originally published in Saudi Aramco World.


By Antonio Graceffo

Followers of the religion of Islam make up less than one percent of the predominantly Buddhist population of Cambodia. Roughly 80% of Cambodia’s Muslims belong to the Cham ethnic group.

“There are two types of Muslims in Cambodia.” Said Sary Abdulah, president of the Islamic National Movement for Democracy of Cambodia. The two groups include: Sunni, traditional Muslims, along the lines of Arab Muslims, who pray five times per day, and Fojihed Muslims, who follow an ancient Cham interpretation of the religion. “They only pray once a week. They speak Cham, and keep the old Cham traditions.” Sary Abdulah went on the explain that the Fojihed maintained many of their pre-Muslim beliefs, particularly in the super-natural, and magical powers. “They believe that they can pray, and achieve great internal power, called Chai. It is similar to what Kung Fu people call Chi.”

“We begin learning Islam in our village when we are small. Our parents and the village Mullah are our first teachers.” Said Ismail Taib, a twenty-four year old Cham from the large ethnic community, located at kilometers seven, eight, and nine, outside of Phnom Penh. The Koran which is being used in Cambodia is written in Arabic. In interviewing various Chams it seemed that the ability to read and interpret Arabic was one of the most important issues in deciding who was qualified to be a Mullah. “Anyone who could read Arabic could be a Mullah.” Said Ismail. “Later, if we wish to continue our studies, we can leave the village and go to a big school in Phnom Penh or Kampong Cham. A few lucky ones will get to go abroad and study.”

Although Sary Abdulah, and many members of his organization were US citizens, Malaysia seemed to be the leading influence on Muslims in Cambodia, and was one of the leading places that young Muslims hoped to study.

“The Koran cannot be translated in Cham, because the Cham have no writing system.” Explained Sary Abdulah. “But we are currently translating the Koran into Khmer language. Of course, the translation is going slowly, because we have no funds. So, we can only do a few pages at a time.” Sary asked me if there were some way I could find funds to support his translation of the Koran.

Islamic education and education in general is one of the main focuses of Sary Abdulah’s work as a community leader. “We need schools and volunteer teachers.” He told me as we strolled through the Muslim market at kilometer eight. “All of this food is Halal.” He told me, proudly. At a stall, I purchased a pudding, made of gelatinous coconut oil. “No bacon here.” He joked. “But I think you will like this one.”

After taking a small bite, to see if Sary was putting me on, I devoured the tasty pastry in a single gulp.

“I told you.” He laughed, as I ordered three more. “You see, Cham people never lie to you.”

The market was a typical outdoor market, seen all through Asia, with various foods and goods being sold from stalls. But the primary difference was that the vendors were almost all women, who wore the beautiful, colored head wrappings of the Muslim faith. Although one didn’t see the all-black hoods and dresses of fundamentalist countries, the Cham wore traditional clothing more often than any other residents of Phnom Penh. Many of the young Cham boys were clad in sarongs and head scarves. Older men wore a small hat, or fez, and many sported a beard. But like religious devotion in western countries, families held varying degrees of obedience to the traditions, making many Cham indistinguishable from members of other religions. Sary Abdulah, for example did not go with his head covered. And many teenage boys were wearing jeans and T-shirts with images of their favorite Taiwanese pop-group, F-4.

We visited a state run school, where all of the students were Cham, but where the curriculum followed the same guidelines as Khmer schools. “When the children finish here, they walk across the street to the Madrasa, and continue studying in the evening.” Explained Sary Abdulah. “We teach them about Islam and Arabic language. But we also want them to learn English and French. So much depends on where the volunteer teachers are from. Our last teacher was able to teach the children French. Some can teach Chinese and Japanese. Right now, we have no teachers at all.”

Once again, Sary Abdulah made his plea. “When you write this story, please ask teachers to come here and help up. And ask rich Muslims in America to send money, so we can build schools, buy computers, and teach our children.”

Nearby, the Islamic vocational school was a rundown cinderblock building, standing alone in an open field, which had flooded during the night. Chickens and goats ran freely through the school building. “I would like to show you the school.” Said Sary Abdulah, “But there is too much water. Anyway, we have a few computers there and a sewing class. In the Cham community education is available to both boys and girls. “We don’t discriminate.” Said Sary. “But the boys and the girls come at different times of day.”

Sary Abdulah took me on a tour of the mosque, connected with the madrasa. “This building was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.” He said. “It took the people until 1987 to be able to rebuild it, and open the doors again.”

As with every other aspect of life in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge period, lasting from 1975-1979 left an indelible mark upon the society. It is estimated that, 132 mosques were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge period. Under the regime, Muslims were prohibited from worshiping. Today, however, Islam has been given the same freedom as Buddhism. In early 1988, there were only six mosques left in the Phnom Penh, and of the 113 most prominent Cham clergy in Cambodia, only 20 survived the Khmer Rouge period. ( Our final stop was at a huge feast prepared by a local Cham community. “Because Ramadan is coming soon, we like to have a big feast in preparation.” Sary told me. The pre-Ramadan feast coincided with the Buddhist festival of the dead, when most Khmers would be saying prayers for their departed ancestors. Before sitting down to eat, the men all kneeled on prayer mats and remembered their lost loved ones. “The Koran doesn’t tell us this, exactly.” Confessed Sary Abdulah. “But we feel it is the right thing to do.”

Like everyone else in Cambodia, after being nearly annihilated during the Khmer Rouge regime, the Cham had been through a lot, but they still found a place in their hearts for charity. “We invite poor people to the feast so that they can have a good meal. This is what the Koran says that we must do.”

Sary brushed the uncomfortable subject of the US War on Terrorism. “Some people misinterpret the Koran. But the Koran is about peace. Our religion is about peace. We, the Muslim people, only want peace. You are Catholic.” He said of me. “But you are my brother, And I invite you here to share food with us. Because this is what the Koran says to do.”

When asked if he had a message he would like to send out to the whole world, Sary answered, without hesitation. “Let them know that Muslim people are not terrorists. Please take your articles to America and teach people about Islam and about the Cham.”

“Anything else?” I asked, in closing.

“Yes,” He said with a smile. “Tell them to send teachers and money, so we can educate our people.”


Contact Sary Abdulah, President of the Islamic National Movement for Democracy of Cambodia:
Contact the author at:

History of Islam in Vietnam

The exact dates of Islam’s spread in Indo-China is not known for certain. However, generally speaking, Islam arrived in Indo-China before it reached China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). It was introduced by merchants from the Muslim world who sailed along the coastal cities. 

“After the passage through the Malacca Strait, known to the Arabs by its Malay name of Salaht (“Strait”), a call was made at Tiuman Island. Next cutting across to Indo-China, they stopped at ports in Sanf, the Champa kingdom in the eastern coastal, then at an island off the coast, known as Sanf Fulaw (corrupted in our texts to “Sandar Fulat”). From there vessels might coast round the Gulf of Tongking to Hanoi, known as Luqin, before they made for their final destination, Canton, which was called Khanfu.”

What is known for sure is that by the 11th century, Islam was already in Vietnam due to recent discovery of two gravestones belonging to the Champa Muslims, dated from the early 11th century. 

Before we proceed further, we need to understand the historical background of the Champa people. The kingdom of Champa was found in the 2nd century and lasted until the 17th century. Their land stretched along the Central coast of what is now modern Vietnam from Hoành S½n massif (Müi  Ròn) in the north to Phan Thiªt (Müi Kê Gà) in the south. The people is of Malayo-Polynesian stock with indianised culture. 

When Islam came, few Champa people adopted it. However, some time between 1607 and 1676, the king of Champa became Muslim thus precipitating most of his people to enter Islam also. 

Throughout the century, the Champa provinces were slowly annexed one by one until finally, by the 17th century they were completely absorbed by the ÐÕi Vi®t (vietnamese). During the reign of the Vietnamese king, Minh MÕng, the Champa were severly persecuted. As a consequence, the last Champa Muslim king, Pô  Ch½n, decided to gather his people (those on the mainland) and migrated south to Cambodia. Whereas those on the coastline, they migrated to Trengganu (Malaysia). The area where the king and the mainlanders settled is still known to this day as Kompong Cham. They were not concentrated in one area but were scattered along the Mekong river in Vietnam, forming 13 villages along it. Throughout the years, their children were sent to Kelantan (Malaysia) to learn Qur’an and Islamic studies. Once studies were completed, these children then return home to teach others in these 13 villages. Also, another factor which helps them to preserve the true teaching of Islam was the interaction between them and the Malaysian Muslim traders who sailed through the Mekong river. 

Not all the Champa Muslims migrated with the king. A group stayed behind in Nha Trang, Phan Rang, Phan Rí, and Phan Thiªt provinces (Central Vietnam). With their increasing isolation with other Muslims, they began to mix Islam with Buddhism, Hindism and Bà La Môn . Hence, their descendents became lost to the true teachings of Islam. In 1959, these descendents came into contact with the Champa Muslims in Châu Яc (one of the 13 villages in South Vietnam) and also with the Muslims community in Saigon (H Chí Minh city). The Muslim community in Saigon, mainly consisted of Indians, Pakistanis, Malaysians, Indonesians and Arabs. (See “Who are the Vietnamese Muslims?”) As a result of this interaction, the descendents who had lost Islam began to return to true Islam. Furthermore, with the help of the Muslims community in Saigon, mosques were built in VÃ¥n Lâm, An Nh½n, and Phѽc Nh½n (Central Vietnam). 

Apart from the Champa Muslims, there are also two groups of Vietnamese Muslims which will be discussed in the article “Who are the Vietnamese Muslims?”After April 30th 1975, while the majority of Vietnamese Muslims remain in Vietnam under the communist regime, a sizable number of them managed to escape to other countries. The majority of them settled in America, France, Malaysia, India, Canada and a handful in Australia.

9 thoughts on “Islam in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam”

  1. Hambali (al Qaeda’s point man in Southeast Asia and Jemaah Islamiyah’s number 2 man) hid in safe houses in Cambodia and Thailand. He was arrested in Ayutthaya, Thailand, which has the largest number of slaves of Allah in the country outside of the southern provinces. Clearly, there is a support network operating in those countries. The slaves of Allah in Indochina like to send their children to madrassahs in South Thailand and Malaysia, and they return with the correct version of Islam. Money for spreading Islam is now pouring into Indochina from the Middle East, Indonesia, and Malaysia. In hindsight, Vietnam and Pol Pot’s decimation of the Islamized Chams has the beneficial effect of setting back the Islamic encroachment into Indochina.

  2. Very interesting. I visited Cambodia three years ago. I met a lot of Muslim Chams. They are nice people and now practice the Islamic faith like any other Muslims in Thailand and Malaysia. I was surprised to find out that a number of religious teachers in Cambodia studied Islam from southern Vietnam and speak Vietnamese fluently. Even more suprising, Islamic textbooks used in Cambodia and Vietnam were in printed in Pattani Province in southern Thailand. I did not observed any Cambodian Muslims talking about politics, anti-Western sentiments, or terrorism.

  3. I did not observed any Cambodian Muslims talking about politics, anti-Western sentiments, or terrorism.

    This is the sort of stupid argument that stupid people make. So what if you did not see it? Think about this statement instead: “I did not observe Cambodian Muslims defecate in public.” Does that mean they do not defecate?

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